London in the Roman World, by Dominic Perring

Packed with detail and essential.
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It is a tall order, to say the least to analyse the pace and extent of change in London during the entire period of Roman influence; but Dominic Perring has managed to produce a convincing narrative of London’s development. His book charts the political and economic factors which affected the city’s structure and administration over time. It is not therefore a book about the everyday lives of Londoners but the environment in which they existed.

This authoritative work has been achieved by examining a wealth of archaeological finds – especially items which can be dated with a degree of reliability, notably pottery and timber remains. Perring’s conclusions are thus based upon the evidence of innumerable artefacts drawn from the very widest range of sites across the city. Such a vast array of material gives considerable weight to Perring’s analysis and the conclusions he draws about London’s story.

Managing a myriad of resources is an epic achievement in itself, because its sheer volume might have defeated a less determined scholar. How important the sources are is amply demonstrated by the fact that the notes and references amount to roughly a quarter of the entire book. There is also, throughout the book a focus on detail so that, for example, descriptions of architectural features or inscriptions are often supported by clear monochrome drawings and diagrams which help to make sense of the changing physical features of London.

Much recent archaeological work in the city has focused upon the Thames riverfront and Perring is able to use that to trace the development of the area, noting how and where changes occurred, for example in port usage. The significant role of the waterfront also means that it is an indicator of the prosperity of the city as a whole.

The story of London is not one of linear expansion but rather that of a rollercoaster, so a central theme of the book is inevitably the ebb and flow of London’s development. There is considerable focus on what caused the apparent decline of Roman London after c. 165 AD and again around 250 AD and also why the city was so swiftly abandoned after 400 AD. The writer explores how the crisis of the third century impacted upon London, suggesting that it had a greater effect than has sometimes been thought. It was a tumultuous time for London with the emergence first of the usurper Carausius and then Allectus who made London the headquarters of their optimistic power bloc. When it all ended in tears in 296 AD, Perring suggests that London might have been sacked had it not been for the efforts of Constantius to save it.

Imperial dislocation, pandemics and subsequent labour shortages sometimes prompted a decline of activity in the city, but the author suggests that, until the very end, London always seemed to bounce back. Perring is clearly impressed with London’s resilience during its times of crisis and concludes that its eventual abandonment in the fifth century should not obscure its survival against all threats up to that point.

Though packed with detail, Dominic Perring’s book is well written and easy to read. For the scholar or the general reader seeking an up-to-date, forensic examination of Roman London, this comprehensive book is an essential tool.

London in the Roman World, by Dominic Perring is out now. Derek Birks is a novelist and author of Land of Fire.